The Graves family of Elkhorn, NE was doing what millions of families do each year when tragedy struck. A vacation gone awry; no one saw it coming. The evening was spent watching an outdoor movie at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa when around 9:00 p.m. two-year-old Lane Graves waded into a nearby lagoon in about a foot of water and was attacked by an alligator. Matt Graves, the boy’s father, jumped in to try to save him. His mother and other witnesses also tried to assist in saving him, but they were too late.
This was a tragic accident that begs the question, was it “unforeseen?” As one who is not an attorney and not involved in any direct knowledge of this accident, I certainly would not want to weigh in on what might be found in the event there is litigation. Was Disney’s “no swimming” sign appropriate? Were alligators known to be inhabiting that lake? Either way, my condolences go out to the family and everyone involved for having to endure such a horrific experience. It is hard to fathom that this occurred when the Graves family was supposed to be creating life-long memories on their vacation.
Each day, America’s hoteliers, restaurateurs, night club operators and attraction managers accept responsibility for the health and safety of millions of men, women and children. These operators must also accept the possibility of an accident that will likely bring public attention upon themselves, their property and their guests. When an event happens, operators must communicate effectively with their guests, team members, the media and public safety officials. Once a crisis occurs, the media and the public are going to want answers as to why it happened, who was involved, when it happened, and let’s be honest, who was to blame. Every property, regardless of size, needs an emergency response and preparedness plan for the aftermath of an attack that includes the following:
- All facts to be released will be disseminated through a designated spokesperson.
- All team members will be instructed to refer all questions to this designated spokesperson.
- All public statements will be truthful.
- Information will be disclosed as quickly as it becomes available.
- A reasonable attempt will be made to answer all questions.
- The media will be allowed access to the property except where safety of reporters, guests or team members would be compromised, where declared off-limits by investigators or where there is an unreasonable imposition on in-house guests.
- All public statements and information disclosed to the media will be shared with team members and guests.
- Management will mobilize all its resources to alleviate the crisis and comfort the victims.
- Management will publicly express concern for the victim’s harm, loss or inconvenience.
- Management will publicly acknowledge its intention to cooperate with all investigating authorities and, if necessary, conduct its own study of the incident.
What can we do better? As hoteliers we must always be asking ourselves this question especially in the wake of a tragic accident. This is not intended to place blame, but rather to ensure that our emergency procedures, processes and action plans are effective. Preventive measures, proper signage and safety guidelines are most likely already in place around hazardous areas, but periodically these items need to be revisited to ensure guest safety. In this specific case it does not appear that there were an adequate number of signs warning guests not to swim in the water and of the wildlife that may have resided there. We do not want to have to wait for an accident to occur to adjust or modify our plans, we need to anticipate potential challenges to the fullest extent possible in advance.
To ensure that we are consistently answering the needs of our guests and team members when it comes to their security and well-being in the midst of a crisis, we recommend that you adhere to the following:
- First, ensure that your staff is extremely sensitive to the needs of all team members and guests. Our primary responsibility is to provide comfort to our guests and to offer assistance/service to those in need.
- Immediately follow any emergency/evacuation instructions from your local officials. If necessary to evacuate, ensure that every guest is notified.
- Secure guest files for emergency communication to families if needed.
- Conduct roll call to account for the evacuation of guests and team members.
- Have a heightened sense of security and be aware of anything out of the ordinary.
- Use good judgment in being flexible to meet your guests’ individual requirements.
- Set up television sets in central locations for the convenience of your guests (if needed).
- Set up a process to update guests on travel information.
- Call your corporate headquarters if there is any unusual event or occurrence at your property.
While the horrific accident that occurred in Florida brings our industry to the forefront in a less than favorable light, it also serves as a reminder to constantly be evaluating the processes we have in place to ensure guest safety. Keep in mind that there may be an expense associated with updating our emergency procedures, for example, cost of new signage or the cost of reprinting procedure handbooks, etc. That being said, it is better to spend effectively on prevention rather than dealing with the fallout, inevitable costs and potential litigation associated with an accident.
While we do our best to prepare for every eventuality, the reality is that accidents are going to happen. When they occur we need to have the proper procedures in place to mitigate potential liabilities and ensure that the well-being of our guests remains our primary focus.
Robert A. Rauch, CHA
Mr. Rauch is a hotel owner, CEO of RAR Hospitality and has consulted in the hospitality for over 25 years as an expert witness.